More than 20 years after realizing that survivors of sexual coercion could find healing in sharing their stories, Tarana Burke has found her own simple words at the heart of a national conversation.
The founder of the original Me Too movement spoke to nearly 700 people, most of them students, at a sold-out event Friday night at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Memorial Union.
Burke, who created a nonprofit organization to help victims of sexual harassment and assault, coined the phrase "Me Too" in 2006 — years before accusations were leveled against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Her words went viral after female celebrities and survivors of sexual harassment and assault used them in a social media hashtag as a form of support and acknowledgment.
Burke walked her audience through the journey that led her to create the Me Too movement. In 1996, she was working with young people in Alabama when a girl named Heaven confided in her about being sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend. Burke told the audience that she desperately wanted to tell the girl that she too is a survivor of sexual violence, but she didn't know how.
Years passed, and she heard more stories of sexual violence. "I tried to avoid this when it happened to me; I tried to avoid it when it happened in my community and family, until I couldn't avoid it anymore," she said.
In 2006, she started Just Be Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to teaching young women of color, that "they are worthy of just existing."
"There's a power in empathy," she said. "I know I'm not alone."
In October 2017, use of the Twitter hashtag "#metoo" by actress Alyssa Milano about assault allegations against Weinstein launched an intense national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. Burke said she panicked when she first heard her words.
"What happens to my work? These are not just two words. There's a body of work behind them," Burke said.
But she said she quickly realized that sexual coercion survivors' use of that hashtag to share their stories was exactly what her years of work were really about.
"This is what survival looks like," Burke said.
Milano soon tweeted, "The great @TaranaBurke started it over a decade ago. I simply amplified it."
Time magazine included Burke when it named "the silence breakers" as its people of the year for 2017.
Toward the end of her speech, Burke praised the U's expulsion of former Gophers basketball star Reggie Lynch for alleged sexual misconduct. On Thursday, Lynch, who has denied wrongdoing, said he would no longer challenge the action.
Lynch's expulsion was also on the minds of many who attended Friday night. Arbresha Ibraimi, a junior and volunteer at the university's Aurora Center, which advocates for victims, said it sent a positive message.
"The U is taking a stance," Ibraimi said. "They are saying, 'We stand with victims and survivors.' "